A Minor Key

The Booker Prize has been so controversial that you can’t call it England’s most prestigious fiction prize. But it’s still the best-flacked. Ian McEwan won it in November for his 192-page Amsterdam, which has just been published here. It’s a dog. It’s also decidedly minor.

McEwan has never been my favorite writer. I’ll assent to the critical commonplace that he’s a narrative virtuoso. But like a docent at his own retrospective, he’s ever insistent that we notice that virtuosity. The spectacular opening of Enduring Love (1997), in which a half-dozen men struggle–and fail–to keep a hot-air balloon from taking off with a small boy in it, is Exhibit A for his skill. But even there, the cuteness cloys: “What were we running towards? I don’t think any of us would ever know fully. But superficially the answer was, a balloon. Not the nominal space that encloses a cartoon character’s speech or thought, nor, by analogy, the kind that’s driven by mere hot air.”

Clearly, Amsterdam owes its Booker to committee embarrassment over not tapping (or even shortlisting) Enduring Love. It’s rather like the Nobel committee’s honoring Hemingway for his vapid The Old Man and the Sea. This leads me to realize that “minor” is most often used as a synonym for “bad” or “short.” It’s not. Amsterdam and Old Man are both bad, short, and minor works. So what does it mean to call a novel “minor”? Herewith, two guesses:

(1) Minor means solipsistic. McEwan’s plot is a contrivance of infantile simplicity worked out among four characters. (I won’t reveal it, but you can see the book’s resolution comin’ round the mountain on page 62.) These characters meet occasionally, but they all hammer out their motivations, allegiances and enmities in private: on long walks, doodling in the office, vegetating in bed, sitting at the kitchen table getting drunk alone. Missing is what the French call intersubjectivite. That’s what gives major novels their heft.

(2) Minor means classbound. Although they differ in lines of work–there’s a Tory foreign secretary, a broadsheet editor, a composer, and a magnate–these characters are class- and attitude-bound. They’re like the same character cloned. While the backdrops vary–the magnate’s house is utilitarian and spare, the musician’s full of antiques–the spiritual decor is as cold as a corporate headquarters. Major fiction is animated by major friction–of classes rubbing together.

McEwan’s aging yuppie ciphers differ only in their wine collections. I suspect they give an accurate picture of the state of human variety among the ruling classes of the European Union. Good novels can be written about these people. So can long ones. But not major ones.

Christopher Caldwell